Revelations last week that the CEO at BC Rail is paid close to half a million dollars a year to manage a railway that has only forty kilometres of track elicited many jokes about Toonerville trolleys and basement train sets. Anyone with no prospects of ever making that large a salary, which means almost all of us, was shocked when they weren't appalled.
Those with long memories will know that this is not the first time that BC Rail has been the butt of public ridicule. The railway began life as the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) in 1912 during the heady days of the pre-WWI economic boomtime. The Grand Trunk Pacific was building across the middle of the province to Prince Rupert and the Canadian Northern was laying track through the Fraser Canyon. It seemed to make perfect sense to construct yet another line, the PGE, linking Vancouver to Prince George via Squamish, especially since most of the money was coming from investors in Britain.
Unhappily, the boom collapsed, as booms tend to do, leaving the provincial government to take over the faltering line, which had been finished as far as Clinton. By 1921 the railway had reached Quesnel, but there it ran out of steam. Which is when the jokes began. The PGE became known as the Prince George Eventually, or the Please Go Easy, "the railway from nowhere to nowhere"(there was still no track linking Vancouver to Squamish). No government was interested in rescuing it from the doldrums.
Then, in the 1950s, along came W.A.C. Bennett, whose penchant for grand development projects is well known. He decided that the PGE was vital to his plans to develop the north. In 1952 the line reached Prince George, but "Wacky" was not finished. By 1958 the track was extended to Fort St. John and then, in 1971, Fort Nelson. Renamed BC Rail in 1972, it even became profitable and was the third largest railway in Canada with close to 3,000 kilometres of track.
Today, however, not much is left from the glory days. In 2004 the province leased operation of the line to Canadian National. BC Rail itself, now a Crown corporation, operates no trains and owns only the aforementioned 40 kilometres of track, though it has plenty of real estate.
The cabinet minister responsible has announced that the government is looking into the future of BC Rail. Despite the good service it gave the interior of the province for many years, it is hard to imagine that it has one.